The information presented below has been gathered from a variety of online resources and is presented for the purpose of inspiring additional research and for some understanding of taxation history. It is not without bias and reflects, in some instances, the opinion of the compiler.
Initially Compiled January 2014, Updated August 2020
Cheryl E. Johnson, PCC, Galveston County Tax Assessor Collector
Note by compiler: If this brief history interests you and you have suggestions for additions and corrections, please email me at email@example.com. I welcome your input!
3000 BC Egyptian Pharaohs’ tax collectors were known as scribes. Scribes imposed taxes on such items as cooking oil and audited households to insure oils were not being reused.
550 BC Athenians imposed a tax in times of war referred to as eisphora. Greeks were one of the few societies that rescinded a tax once the war emergency was over. Foreigners (those who did not have both an Athenian mother and father) paid a monthly poll tax of one drachma for men and one half for women. This tax was referred to as metoikion.
27 BC The earliest taxes in Rome were customs duties on imports and exports called portoria. Considered the most brilliant tax strategist of the Roman Empire, Caesar Augustus virtually eliminated the publican (tax collectors for the Senate) and localized tax collections to the cities. He also instituted an inheritance tax and used these funds to provide retirement benefits for the military.
60 AD The first tax revolt occurred and was led by Boadicea, queen of East Anglia who was opposed to corrupt tax collectors in the British Isles. Emperor Nero crashed the Queen’s army unfortunately.
476 AD When Rome fell, the Saxon kings imposed taxes, referred to as danegeld on land and property. This is the first property tax we have been able to confirm. Other taxes were imposed (customs duties were the preferred type of the times).
1000 AD The second known tax revolt and certainly the most famous was when Lady Godiva agreed to ride naked through the streets of Coventry if her husband, Leofric, Earl of Mercia, would reduce the heavy burden of taxes he levied on the citizens. A person named Tom is reported to have looked upon the naked Godiva thus creating the term Peeping Tom!
1337 – 1453 The 100 Year War between England and France was in part due to the oppressive tax policies of Edward, The Black Prince. During these times, an income tax was imposed on the wealthy, office holders, and the clergy. A tax on property was imposed on merchants and the poor paid little or no taxes.
1629 Charles I problems with Parliament came about because of a disagreement about the rights of taxation afforded the King and the rights of taxation afforded the Parliament. The King's Writ stated that individuals should be taxed according to status and means therefore the idea of a progressive tax on those with the ability to pay was developed.
1647 The Smithfield riots occurred due to the taxes on land and various excise taxes that were assessed to pay for Oliver Cromwell’s army. The excise tax increased the tax on the poor so much rural laborers were unable to buy wheat. Lands used for hunting by the peasant class were also taxed and had it not been for Robin Hood, many would have starved.
1764 The Molasses Act was modified to include import duties on foreign molasses, sugar, wine and other commodities and later became known as the Sugar Act.
1765 The Stamp Act was the fourth Stamp Act to be passed by Parliament. It was added since the Sugar Act failed to raise sufficient taxes and imposed a direct tax on all newspapers printed in the colonies as well as on all legal documents, permits, commercial contracts, wills, pamphlets, and playing cards.
Americans rose up in strong protest, arguing that there should be "No Taxation without Representation". Boycotts forced Britain to repeal the stamp tax, while convincing many British leaders it was essential to tax the colonists on something in order to demonstrate the sovereignty of Parliament.
1767 The Townshend Revenue Act passed by Parliament that placed a tax on common products imported into the Colonies such as lead, paper, paint, glass and tea.
1773 The Tea Act was designed to undercut tea smugglers to the benefit of the East India Company. This tax was the cause of the Boston Tea Party which was an act of protest by the Colonists against Great Britain. This conflict escalated to war in 1775 (American Revolution) and thus America’s birth was the result of a tax revolt.
1794 The Whiskey Rebellion in the Colonies was the result of Alexander Hamilton’s excise tax of 1791. Considered discriminatory, settlers rioted against the tax collectors and President Washington had to send in troops to end the riots.
1798 Congress enacted the Federal Property Tax to pay for expansion of the Army and Navy in the event of war with France. John Fries began what is referred to as the "Fries Rebellion," in opposition to the new tax.
1861 The Tax Act proposed that "there shall be levied, collected, and paid, upon annual income of every person residing in the U.S. whether derived from any kind of property, or from any professional trade, employment, or vocation carried on in the United States or elsewhere, or from any source whatever.” Although it passed, it was never put into force. Rates under the Act were 3% on income above $800 and 5% on income of individuals living outside America.
1862 The Tax Act of 1862 was passed to raise income for the Civil War. There was a 3% rate on income above $600 and 5% on income above $10,000. Although the people cheerfully accepted the tax, compliance was less than 1% of the population actually filing returns.
1864 The Tax Act of 1864 was passed to raise additional revenue. Rates were 5% for income between $600 and $5000, 7.5% for income between $5001 and $10,000 and 10% on income above $10,000. At the end of the Civil War, the public's accepted cheerfulness with regard to taxation waned and a flat 5% tax was adopted, was later lowered to 2.5%.
1872 The Tax Act was repealed and stiff tariff restrictions served as the major revenue source for America.
1913 The 16th Amendment was passed, allowing Congress authority to tax citizens on income.
Meanwhile in Texas
Before 1978, the Texas Constitution required all property owners to pay property taxes with the exception of properties exempted by federal law, government owned properties and that belonging to churches and schools. Agricultural land benefited from lower valuation but the only other exemption was for Texans over the age of 65 who could qualify for a limited, partial reduction on their homes. Most other real and personal property was taxed including automobiles, household furniture, stocks, bonds and cash in the bank.
Although the Texas Constitution required taxation to be equal, uniform and based on market value, there was no uniform statewide assessment level and, each taxing jurisdiction set its taxable value. Local tax offices operated with little oversight with the exception of court decisions. Each government could hire an assessor to appraise properties to determine the amount of the tax due and they acted independently in creating tax policies including how they valued properties. As a result, property owners often were taxed on widely varying values on the same property with value protests decided by each tax office. The first ARB was county commissioners court and their decisions were considered to be politically motivated.
The Governor’s Office for Education Resources conducted a study to verify school district values were accurate during the 1970’s. This office is now known as the Property Tax Division and is under the oversight of the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts who continues to conduct an annual review of school district values.
The Texas Property Tax Code was adopted in the late 1970’s and consolidated the valuation function into one office in each county – the local appraisal district, headed by a chief appraiser who is hired by the Board of Directors who were initially required to be elected officials that were appointed by the local governments. This was changed in the 1990’s to provide for members of the public to be appointed. The chief appraiser of each appraisal district hires staff, prepares budgets, administers applications for exemptions, and oversees day-to-day district operations.
Initially, replacing the various assessors in a county with a single CAD created numerous problems including a legal challenge by Galveston County Tax Assessor Collector Chuck Wilson. Wilson contended that he had a Constitutional right to retain his duties to determine the value of property in the County. This case went to the Texas Supreme Court and the Galveston Central Appraisal District was victorious in maintaining its duty to appraise Galveston County’s property values.
Interestingly, accountability to the people remains remote and the words written in the dissenting opinion of Supreme Court Justice William Kilgarlin haunt many even today. In the opinion he affirms, “What we have wrought by the court’s opinion today is to give faceless, nameless boards, responsible to the electorate only in a most indirect and circuitous way, a stamp of approval to continue to escalate to irrational levels, appraised evaluations far in excess of the market value of people’s homes. If no taxation without representation was a popular theme a little over two hundred years ago, surely no appraisal without representation should share a similar accolade today.”
Today’s Property Tax Code requires each county appraisal district board to adopt every other year a Reappraisal Plan identifying how properties will be appraised. It also requires “truth-in-taxation” which is truly anything but, with the calculations looking more like an IRS tax form than anything understandable by the general public.
Regardless, truth in taxation requires public hearings and notices by governments and establishes published calculations to establish limits on acceptable rates (effective rate which is the rate that will raise the same amount of tax revenue as the previous year based on the same properties and a rollback rate which, at 4% over the effective rate forces a rollback election by school districts which is automatic and at 8% for all other governments). Except for school districts that have an automatic election to ratify any adopted rate in excess of 2.5%, revenue growth beyond the 3.5% results in an automatic voter approval election.
The Texas Property Tax Code is typically amended every session of the Texas Legislature. Interested persons should track proposals online, conduct their own research and let their opinion be known to their elected officials.